In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Anthropology and Theology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Ethnographies
  • Theoretical Essays and Books
  • Anthropologically Engaged Theology
  • Theologically Engaged Anthropology
  • Classic Texts

Anthropology Anthropology and Theology
J. Derrick Lemons
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0185


The anthropologies of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism have inherent theologies that need to be uncovered in order to more deeply understand each faith tradition (see Howell, et al. 2016, cited under Theologically Engaged Anthropology). However, the contested relationship between anthropology and theology throughout most of the history of anthropology is well documented and has limited engagement with theology. The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith (Larsen 2014, cited under Theologically Engaged Anthropology) offers a biographical history of E. B. Tylor, James Frazer, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Mary Douglas, and Victor and Edith Turner that uncovers this complicated relationship. The positivistic and empiricist assumptions of Tylor and Frazer led to a marginalization of theology as an appropriate collaborative discipline. However, the openness of Evans-Pritchard, Douglas, and the Turners allowed theology and their personal faith to influence their anthropological theories. This resulted in the emergence of creative anthropological theories. While the history of engagement between anthropology and theology is complicated, anthropologists and theologians are now rethinking the possibilities of theology and anthropology reengaging and are well on their way to forging new paths for a theologically engaged anthropology. Examples can be found at three research centers dedicated to bringing together anthropologists and theologians to work collaboratively. First, the Center for Theologically Engaged Anthropology at the University of Georgia is dedicated to answering the question, “What can theology contribute to cultural anthropology?”—without forgetting the equally important question, “What can anthropology contribute to theology?” Second, the On Knowing Humanity Research Center at Eastern University in Pennsylvania creates a space for Christian anthropologists to share their insights through the eyes of faith. Third, the Center for Theology, Science and Human Flourishing at the University of Notre Dame places a major focus on pairing theologians with evolutionary anthropologists in order to stimulate new areas of research. The work of these centers and a growing body of literature suggests that the time is right for a reengagement between theology and anthropology.

General Overviews

The addition of anthropology and theology to the Oxford Bibliographies in Anthropology is due in part to the foundation of the bibliographies dedicated to “Missionization,” “Anthropology of Islam,” and “Anthropology of Christianity.” Each of these foundational bibliographies provides excellent background reading for scholars interested in anthropology and theology. The “Missionization” bibliography provides information about the longest-standing collaboration between anthropologists and theologians. The “Anthropology of Islam” bibliography explains the importance of Talal Asad’s work to problematize the separation of theology (scriptural Islam) and anthropology (lived Islam). The “Anthropology of Christianity” bibliography connects the importance of the work of Asad which problematized the secular underpinnings of anthropology and provides a primary link to the demand for a theologically engaged anthropology. A thorough reading of these three bibliographies reveals significant overlaps with anthropology and theology. Therefore, this “Anthropology and Theology” bibliography will primarily offer annotations for books and articles not found in the bibliographies dedicated to missionization, Islam, and Christianity. Wason 2017 highlights the importance of a deep understanding of culture. Anthropology and Theology (Davies 2002) is an early book that considers the topic of anthropology and theology. However, the seminal paper that provoked many anthropologists to think about the possibilities of a collaboration between anthropology and theology is “Anthropology and Theology: An Awkward Relationship?” (Robbins 2006). This article engages with Milbank 2006, questions the marginalization of theology by anthropologists, and develops a preliminary outline for anthropologists to engage with theology. Milbank suggests that through an engagement with theology, an anthropologist can discover and understand the influence of theology on anthropological thought, can use theological discourse to reveal clues about important cultural shifts in religion, and can use theology as an inspiration to find “hope for real change” in the world. Inspired by Robbins’s article, a special journal issue titled Anthropological Theologies: Engagements and Encounters (Fountain and Lau 2013) argues that theology must be taken seriously to uncover new anthropological insights. Additionally, an article titled “Engaging the Religiously Committed Other: Anthropologists and Theologians in Dialogue” (Meneses, et al. 2014) uses the problem of violence as an illustration of the need for Christian anthropologists to speak within scholarly circles. Over the course of twenty chapters, anthropologists and theologians provide two theoretical frameworks with ethnographic examples that deepen the engagement between anthropology and theology. More generally, two issues of Practical Matters (Martin and Whitmore 2010) dedicated to ethnography and religion reveal a rigorous research collaboration between the social sciences and theology.

  • Davies, Douglas J. 2002. Anthropology and theology. Oxford: Berg.

    An innovative study that uses common anthropological and theological topics to create a dialogue between these disciplines and demonstrates the ways anthropology and theology can enrich each other.

  • Fountain, Philip, and Sin Wen Lau, eds. 2013. Special issue: Anthropological theologies: Engagements and encounters. Australian Journal of Anthropology 24.3.

    An investigation on anthropological theologies that ultimately calls for an anthropology that is open to provisional, dialogic, and potentially transformative interactions across diverse theologies, and suggests that such a move will help shed light on the possibilities of remodeling the practice of anthropology.

  • Martin, Lerone, and Luke Whitmore, eds. 2010. Special journal: Ethnography and theology. Practical Matters: A Journal of Religious Practices and Practical Theology 3.

    A special journal issue dedicated to highlighting the transformative potential of an intersected approach to ethnography and theology.

  • Meneses, Eloise, Lindy Backues, David Bronkema, Eric Flett, and Benjamin L. Hartley. 2014. Engaging the religiously committed other: Anthropologists and theologians in dialogue. Current Anthropology 55.1: 82–104.

    DOI: 10.1086/674716

    A critique of the marginalization of Christian anthropologists that uses the problem of violence as an example of the need for a Christian anthropology.

  • Merz, Johannes, and Sharon Merz. 2017. Occupying the ontological penumbra: Towards a postsecular and theologically minded anthropology. Religions 8.5: 1–17.

    DOI: 10.3390/rel8050080

    An important article that argues for a space for anthropologists and theologians to seriously consider the real possibility of the existence of gods, spirits, and other nonhuman entities.

  • Milbank, John. 2006. Theology and social theory: Beyond secular reason. Oxford: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470694121

    A masterpiece that offers a theological critique of the secular underpinnings of the social sciences, and suggests that the social sciences undermine theological enquiry. This book inspired Joel Robbins to write about the awkward relationship between anthropology and theology (see Robbins 2006).

  • Robbins, Joel. 2006. Anthropology and theology: An awkward relationship? Anthropological Quarterly 79.2: 285–294.

    DOI: 10.1353/anq.2006.0025

    The seminal article that inspired anthropologists to consider a reengagement with theology.

  • Tomlinson, Matt. 2017. Christian difference: A review essay. Comparative Studies in Society and History 59.3: 1–11.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0010417517000238

    An important synthesis discussing how a theologically engaged anthropology can better understand the difference that Christianity makes in society.

  • Wason, Paul. 2017. The difference culture makes. On Knowing Humanity Journal 1.1: 14–24.

    DOI: 10.18251/okh.v1i1.11

    An article that evaluates the concept of culture and suggests that using culture as an intellectual tool will reinvigorate research in anthropology and theology.

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